W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for the ‘Error’ Category

Once-prominent E&P tells media myths about Murrow, Watergate

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Television, Washington Post, Watergate myth on September 18, 2021 at 10:29 am

The trade journal Editor & Publisher once was something of a must-read periodical in the news business. It was never much of a crusading magazine, but its announcements about hirings and departures, as well as its classified ads, were closely watched by professional journalists.

E&P, as it’s called, traces its pedigree to the late 19th century but is hardly much of a force these days. It nearly went out of business 12 years or so ago and more recently was sold to a company led by media consultant Michael Blinder.

He is E&P’s publisher and in a column posted this week at the publication’s website, Blinder blamed the news media for exacerbating political divisions in the country. In a passage of particular interest to Media Myth Alert, Blinder wrote:

“I ask you, in today’s media ecosystem, could Edward R. Murrow have really brought that critical ‘truth to power’ that took down Senator Joe McCarthy? Or would Richard Nixon have had to resign over his many documented cover-ups revealed by Woodward and Bernstein? The answer is ‘no!'”

The answer indeed is “no,” because broadcast legend Murrow of CBS did not take down McCarthy. And Nixon did not resign because of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting for the Washington Post.

Those claims are hoary, media-driven myths — tales about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or highly exaggerated.

The myths of Murrow-McCarthy and of Watergate are still widely believed despite having been thoroughly debunked.

And not only debunked: they’ve been dismissed or scoffed at by journalists who figured centrally in the respective tales.

As I wrote in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, after his famous See It Now television program about McCarthy on March 9, 1954, “Murrow said he recognized his accomplishments were modest, that at best he had reinforced what others had long said” about the red-baiting senator from Wisconsin.

McCarthy: red-baiting senator

The television critic for the New York Post, Jay Nelson Tuck, wrote that Murrow felt “almost a little shame faced at being saluted for his courage in the McCarthy matter. He said he had said nothing that … anyone might not have said without a raised eyebrow only a few years ago.”

Not only that, but as I wrote in Getting It Wrong, “Murrow in fact was very late in confronting McCarthy, that he did so only after other journalists [such as muckraking columnist Drew Pearson] had challenged the senator and his tactics” long before March 1954.

Additionally, Murrow’s producer and collaborator, Fred W. Friendly, scoffed at the notion that Murrow’s program was pivotal or decisive, writing in his memoir: “To say that the Murrow broadcast of March 9, 1954, was the decisive blow against Senator McCarthy’s power is as inaccurate as it is to say that Joseph R. McCarthy … single-handedly gave birth to McCarthyism.”

Even more adamant, perhaps, was Bob Woodward’s dismissing the notion his reporting brought down Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

Woodward declared in an interview in 2004:

To say that the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit.”

Woodward’s appraisal, however inelegant, is on-target. He and Bernstein did not topple Nixon.

Nor did they reveal, as Blinder writes, Nixon’s coverup of the crimes of Watergate, which began with a botched burglary in June 1972 at headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

As Columbia Journalism Review pointed out in 1973, in a lengthy and hagiographic account about Woodward and Bernstein:

“The Post did not have the whole story [of Watergate], by any means. It had a piece of it. Woodward and Bernstein, for understandable reasons, completely missed perhaps the most insidious acts of all — the story of the coverup and the payment of money to the Watergate defendants to buy their silence.”

They “completely missed” the coverup.

The journalism review quoted Woodward as saying this about the coverup and hush money payments: “‘It was too high. It was held too close. Too few people knew. We couldn’t get that high.’”

As I discussed in Getting It Wrong, the New York Times “was the first news organization to report the payment of hush money to the Watergate burglars, a pivotal disclosure that made clear that efforts were under way to conceal the roles of others in the scandal.” I quoted a passage in a book by John Dean, Nixon’s former counsel, as saying the Times‘ report about hush-money payments “hit home! It had everyone concerned and folks in the White House and at the reelection committee were on the wall.”

Unequivocal evidence of Nixon’s guilty role in coverup wasn’t revealed until August 1974, with disclosure of the so-called “smoking gun” audiotape, the release of which had been ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The tape’s content sealed Nixon’s fate.

On the “smoking gun” tape — one of many Nixon had secretly recorded at the White House and elsewhere — the president can be heard approving a plan to use the CIA to divert the FBI’s investigation into the Watergate break-in.

The notion that the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein brought down Nixon may be cheering and reassuring to contemporary journalists. But it is a misleading interpretation that minimizes the more powerful and decisive forces — such as the Supreme Court — that were crucial to Watergate’s unraveling and to Nixon’s resignation in the summer of 1974.

WJC

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Challenging the media-driven mantra that 9/11 ‘changed everything’

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post on September 10, 2021 at 3:02 pm

From the hours immediately after the deadly terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, news outlets have promoted a mantra that the assault on commercial and military landmarks in New York and suburban Washington “changed everything” in America.

USA Today stated as much on the day after the attacks:

“Days that live in infamy are supposed to be found in dusty history books. Tuesday changed all that. It changed everything. Our world will never be the same.”

The Independent in London declared on the day after:

“Tuesday, 11 September 2001, will go down in America’s annals as the day that changed everything. It was the day that a nation’s confidence was shattered during morning rush-hour in New York City, and its defensive might was mocked at coffee-time in Washington.”

Similar accounts invoking a similar catchcry have appeared in innumerable news reports and commentaries in the 20 years since al-Qaeda terrorists commandeered commercial jets and flew two of them into the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center. They crashed a third into the west facade of the Pentagon. A fourth hijacked jet plunged into a field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, after passengers attempted to wrest control of the aircraft.

Nearly 3,000 people were killed in the attacks, and the lives of thousands of others were shattered or forever altered.

To posit that 9/11 “changed everything” understandably has been a way to make fathomable the shock, horror, and malignant theatricality of that infamous day, a way to invest September 11, 2001, with exceptional and enduring significance.

But exactly what “changed everything” meant remained definitionally elusive — and subject to not infrequent dispute. “Nothing changes everything,” columnist George Will wrote at the fifth anniversary of 9/11. (The activist Jesse Jackson said at the first anniversary that “9/11 did not change everything. It did change the subject.”)

The Washington Post made a determined effort recently to pin down and elaborate on the “changed everything” mantra. It did so by devoting much of its Sunday magazine (see cover image nearby) to a collection of brief, solicited opinions purporting to describe how 9/11 wrought change in journalism, television, movies, art, fashion, theater, policing, architecture, editorial cartooning, and other fields and pursuits.

The collection was introduced with a sweeping claim that “9/11 changed the world in demonstrable, massive and heartbreaking ways.”

It was a far-reaching yet ultimately unpersuasive attempt to clarify and bring dimension to the “changed everything” catchcry. Indeed, it was striking that the Post’s collection presented only mixed evidence of significant change incontrovertibly linked to the attacks. Many entries were impressionistic; vagueness stalked more than a few contributions.

For example, one contributor wrote, “Museums have yet to return to the levels of ambition we saw before the attacks.”

Declared another contributor: “The post-9/11 fashion industry puts a premium on fresh faces and wily entrepreneurs. And while those celebrated young talents often move with reckless speed, the desire to create and a belief in the impossible were salvaged from the wreckage.”

USA Today front page, day after 9/11

Another contributor alluded to recordings of telephone calls placed by victims aboard the hijacked aircraft or trapped in the stricken Twin Towers and wrote:

“There’s no way to prove, of course, that 9/11 led more people to use the phrase ‘I love you.’ And we might not be thinking of disaster while on a routine call with Mom, Dad, a sibling, a best friend or a spouse. But it was one of the first times Americans got such a visceral window into other people’s intimate conversations — and I believe that, for many of us, it left a mark.”

The attacks of 9/11 certainly led to change — and fresh intrusions — in airport security and personal privacy. The federal government was expanded. The country fought a prolonged conflict in Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda planned the attacks.

But when considered closely, it becomes clear the 9/11 attacks did not “change everything.”

The attacks were not fatal to American political or economic power. Public opinion polls reported that after 9/11 many Americans felt a surge of patriotic fervor, a deeper commitment to the religious and spiritual side of life, and a newfound sense of political unity.

Such responses proved fleeting, however. They faded in time.

Even the Post’s collection acknowledged, perhaps unintentionally,  that change after 9/11 wasn’t always so enduring. The syndicated cartoonist Steve Breen wrote, for example, that after the attacks “there seemed to be an unspoken rule that our favorite target, President George W. Bush, was off-limits. Luckily, that didn’t last long, and we were free to go after Bush (as well as Dick Cheney, John Ashcroft, Tom Ridge, etc.) unfettered.”

Gene Weingarten, the newspaper’s humor columnist, observed: “Pretty quickly [after 9/11], humor returned. It was, I think, the first return to normalcy after that ghastly day, the first good thing to happen.”

(Just a week after the 9/11 attacks, Weingarten had lamented the diminished state of humor in America. “The problem,” he wrote then, “is we are finding no humor, anywhere. When will we be able to laugh again?”)

An assessment far more tempered and thoughtful about the effects of 9/11 was offered not long ago by Anatol Lieven, a Georgetown University professor who pointed out:

“In the United States, the long-term impact of 9/11 does not compare to the great underlying tensions that have shaped American life over generations and centuries: racial tensions and oppression, fears created by immigration, concern about cultural change and the threat to religion and morality, fears about the impact of alcohol and drugs, and the Cold War.

“The impact of 9/11 rather resembles one of the ‘moral panics’ analyzed by James A. Morone in Hellfire Nation; a wave of public hysteria that, like Prohibition and McCarthyism, has receded again, leaving behind a new layer of US security institutions and practices.”

Akin to a “wave of public hysteria that, like Prohibition and McCarthyism, has receded again”: that’s a fair point — a tenable interpretation given the analytical distance allowed by the passage of 20 years.

“The events of 9/11,” Lieven observed in closing, “have not … defined the world in general, and certainly not ‘our’ world in the West.

“The truly defining factors are quite different,” he wrote, citing the “geopolitical struggle with China” and the domestic troubles of Western democracies.

What’s notable and refreshing about Lieven’s commentary is that it did not proceed from an assumption that 9/11 “changed everything.” It is instead a detached and critical assessment, of which we could use more.

WJC

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Afghanistan is ‘Biden’s Katrina’? Afghanistan is dramatically worse

In Error, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Scandal on August 27, 2021 at 10:12 am

USA Today suggested in an editorial the other day that the chaos accompanying Joe Biden’s botched and precipitous withdrawal of U.S. military personnel could turn into a kind of Hurricane Katrina for the president.

New Orleans, post-Katrina

The reference was to the damage done to President George W. Bush’s administration by the fitful federal response to the storm that tore into the U.S. Gulf Coast 16 years ago, leaving much of New Orleans under water.

The newspaper’s analogy, while interesting, was cliched and badly misplaced: the hasty and unprovoked U.S. flight Biden ordered from Afghanistan after a 20 year commitment there, and the country’s rapid takeover by Taliban extremists, represent a foreign policy debacle of towering and unprecedented dimensions — a humiliation likely to reverberate for years.

So, no, Afghanistan is hardly “Biden’s Katrina.”

It is scandalously worse, as was confirmed yesterday by the deadly terrorist bombings near Kabul’s international airport, the lone exit from Afghanistan for untold thousands of Americans, other Westerners, and Afghans who allied with them since the U.S.-led invasion in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on America on September 11, 2001.

It is true that New Orleans in Katrina’s wake conjured comparisons to a war zone. The dominant media narrative in late summer 2005 told of mayhem and unimaginable horror that supposedly had been unleashed across the flooded city.

The Miami Herald, to take just one example, said on September 1, 2005, that a “major American city [had] all but disintegrated … and the expected death toll from Hurricane Katrina mushroomed into the thousands. Bodies floated down streets. Defeated survivors waded waist-deep and ghost-like through floods. Packs of looters rampaged through the ruins and armed themselves with stolen weapons, and gunfire echoed through the city.”

Paula Zahn, for another example, said on her CNN program that day, “We are getting reports that describe [New Orleans] as a nightmare of crime, human waste, rotten food, dead bodies everywhere. Other reports say sniper fire is hampering efforts to get people out.” She referred to “very discouraging reports out of New Orleans tonight about bands of rapists going from block to block, people walking around in feces, dead bodies floating everywhere.”

In her column published September 3, 2005, in the New York Times, Maureen Dowd referred to New Orleans as “a snake pit of anarchy, death, looting, raping, marauding thugs, suffering innocents, a shattered infrastructure, a gutted police force, insufficient troop levels and criminally negligent government planning.”

But much of the reporting about Katrina’s aftermath — the horror, the anarchy, the city’s disintegration — was highly exaggerated and erroneous. Few if any of the nightmarish accounts that pulsated through the news media proved true.

As I wrote in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “On crucial details, journalists erred badly” in describing post-Katrina horrors in New Orleans. What’s more, I wrote, “the erroneous and exaggerated reporting had the cumulative the effect of painting for America and the rest of the world a scene of surreal violence and terror, something straight out of Mad Max or Lord of the Flies.”

The coverage of Katrina’s aftermath was no “quintessentialgreat moment in journalism, as some credulous commentators (including former CBS News anchor Dan Rather) declared.

Instead, the exaggerated coverage had the effect of tainting a proud city and its residents at a time of their great vulnerability. It also had the effect of delaying the arrival of aid to New Orleans.

If anyone rioted, it was the media,” a bipartisan congressional report on Katrina stated, adding, pointedly:

“Many stories of rape, murder, and general lawlessness were at best unsubstantiated, at worst simply false.”

Some of the most troubling conduct by public figures was not that of the Bush administration but of local government, notably the New Orleans mayor, Ray Nagin, and the city’s police commissioner, Eddie Compass. They were sources for some of the most gruesome and exaggerated reporting about lawlessness in Katrina’s aftermath.

At one point, Nagin asserted that “hundreds of armed gang members” were terrorizing evacuees inside the New Orleans Superdome. He claimed that conditions there had deteriorated to “an almost animalistic state” and evacuees had been “in that frickin’ Superdome for five days, watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people.”

Compass told of other horrors. “We had little babies in there, little babies getting raped,” Compass said about the Superdome where, he claimed, police officers had been shot and wounded.

Their accounts of violence in New Orleans were taken at face value and widely reported — but proved almost completely without foundation. Months later, Compass said he passed along the rumors of violence because he “didn’t want people to think we were trying to cover anything up. So I repeated things without being substantiated, and it caused a lot of problems.”

Compass quit his job in late September 2005. Nagin, who won reelection less than two years after Katrina struck, was convicted in 2014 and sent to prison on 20 counts of corruption, bribery and fraud — charges unrelated to the hurricane and its aftermath. He was released early last year.

Katrina was a powerful, destructive natural disaster, the coverage of which the news media botched.

The U.S. exit from Afghanistan is a bloody, self-inflicted disaster, borne of Biden’s blundering, impatience, and ineptitude.

WJC

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Insidious: Off-hand references signal deep embedding of prominent media myths

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Quotes, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 6, 2021 at 11:15 am

The insidious nature of prominent media myths is evident in how casually they are invoked, as if their veracity is beyond question.

These blithe, passing references in news articles and commentary seldom are accompanied by much context or explanation. And their appearance signals how deeply embedded some media myths have become.

Two recent cases serve to illustrate this tendency.

Musings in the New York Times

One example appeared last week in an entertaining if overlong New York Times article that mused about the identity of an elusive and anonymous Instagram user whose handle is rg_bunny1. Over the recent months, user rg_bunny1 has unleashed what the Times called “a daily torrent of quirky, particular images that, taken together, speak to an aesthetic that delights, confounds, fixates and infuriates in equal measures.”

What most interests Media Myth Alert was the article’s passing reference to Carl Bernstein, one of the Washington Post’s lead reporters on the Watergate scandal of 1972-74. Bernstein, we are told, was “one-half of the duo that famously uncovered the source that brought down the Nixon presidency.”

The “duo” was Bernstein and Bob Woodward and “the source” no doubt refers to “Deep Throat,” the anonymous informant with whom Woodward — but not Bernstein — consulted from time to time as the Watergate scandal unfolded in 1972 and 1973.

But he was “the source that brought down the Nixon presidency”?

Nope. Not “Deep Throat.” Not Bernstein and Woodward. Not their reporting for the Washington Post.

Those all are components of a tenacious media myth — what I call the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate — a trope that’s erroneous but ever-appealing, easy to retell and easy to grasp.

What really brought down Nixon is far more complicated than a duo of journalists and a well-placed anonymous source.

As I wrote in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of the dimensions and intricacy of Watergate “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.”

But even then, I noted, “Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings,” making inevitable the early end to his presidency in August 1974.

The disclosure about the existence of Nixon’s tapes was pivotal in the Watergate saga — and it was a disclosure not by Bernstein and Woodward or by “Deep Throat,” but by a former Nixon aide in testimony before  a U.S. Senate select committee. (In a book about their Watergate reporting, Bernstein and Woodward claimed to have had a lead about the existence of the tapes, but did not pursue it because the Post’s executive editor, Ben Bradlee, didn’t think it would lead to a high-quality story.)

The “Deep Throat” source was W. Mark Felt, a senior FBI official who fed Watergate-related information, and sometimes misinformation, to Woodward (as well as a reporter for Time magazine named Sandy Smith). Felt was motivated not so much by altruism or distate for Nixon’s White House as by ambition to become director of the FBI, a position that opened up in May 1972 with the death of J. Edgar Hoover.

By leaking to reporters, Felt believed he could undercut his rivals for the FBI directorship. Those motives were persuasively described in Max Holland’s 2016 book Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat.

It’s useful and revealing in this context to recall what Woodward once said about the notion that he and Bernstein toppled Nixon. Woodward told an interviewer in 2004:

To say that the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit.”

Another example of a media myth breezily cited appeared the other day in essay posted at the online site of Newsmax, the cable news outlet that has become a favorite of former President Donald Trump.

The essay took up President Joe Biden’s recent gun-control proposal, asserting that it would “strangle the rights of law-abiding gun-owners.” In search of an analogy, the essay landed on the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968. That was when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite delivered a pessimistic, on-air assessment about the U.S. war effort in Vietnam.

The Newsmax essay invoked President Lyndon Johnson’s supposed reaction — “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America,” or something to that effect — and declared:

“At that moment, and on that basis, [Johnson] decided that he wouldn’t seek another term as president.”

Again, nope.

Johnson did not watch Cronkite’s report about Vietnam when it aired on February 27, 1968, and it is not clear whether the president ever saw the show program on videotape at some undefined later date.

But it is clear that in the days and weeks immediately after the Cronkite report, Johnson remained publicly and adamantly hawkish about the war. In orher words, when the effects of Cronkite’s pessimistic assessment should have been most potent, Johnson was as insistent as ever about prosecuting the conflict. After the presumptive “Cronkite Moment,” Johnson doubled down on his Vietnam policy.

Just three days after Cronkite’s report, for example, Johnson vowed in remarks at a testimonial dinner that the United States would “not cut and run” from Vietnam. “We’re not going to be Quislings,” he said, invoking the surname of a Norwegian politician who had helped the Nazis take over his country. “And we’re not going to be appeasers.”

At a ceremony at the White House on March 12, 1968, at which he awarded Medals of Honor to two Marines, the president declared:

“I think if we are steady, if we are patient, if we do not become the willing victims of our own despair [about Vietnam], if we do not abandon what we know is right when it comes under mounting challenge — we shall never fail.”

The president spoke about Vietnam with even greater vigor in mid-March 1968, telling a meeting of business leaders in Washington:

“We must meet our commitments in the world and in Vietnam. We shall and we are going to win. … I don’t want a man in here to go back home thinking otherwise — we are going to win.”

Johnson’s views on Vietnam did change, and he did decide against seeking reelection to the presidency.

But not because of what Cronkite had said.

The reasons for the president’s change of heart were political, at least in part.

By mid-March 1968, Johnson was facing insurgent challenges for the Democratic nomination from two anti-war U.S. senators, Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. Johnson had nearly lost the New Hampshire primary election on March 12, 1968, to McCarthy and he seemed unlikely to prevail in the upcoming primary in Wisconsin.

Also was influential in swinging Johnson’s views about the war was a coterie of informal advisers who met at the White House in late March 1968.

The advisers, who came to be called the “Wise Men,” included such foreign policy notables as Dean Acheson, a former secretary of state; McGeorge Bundy, a former national security adviser, and George Ball, a former under-secretary of state.

“The theme that ran around the table was, ‘You’ve got to lower your sights'” in Vietnam, Ball later recalled.

Johnson, he said, “was shaken by this kind of advice from people in whose judgment he necessarily had some confidence, because they’d had a lot of experience.”

The counsel of the Wise Men was a tipping point in Johnson’s deciding to seek “peace through negotiations.” In a speech on March 31, 1968, Johnson announced limits to U.S. aerial bombing of North Vietnam, as an inducement to the communist regime in Hanoi to enter talks to end the war.

Johnson closed the speech by declaring he would not seek reelection — a bombshell announcement that contained no reference, passing or otherwise, to Cronkite’s on-air assessment of a month before.

WJC

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Punctured tale of Trump’s photo op may live on as media myth

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Television, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 15, 2021 at 12:24 pm

The insistent media narrative that demonstrators were violently expelled from Lafayette Square outside the White House a year ago to allow then-President Donald Trump to pose for photographs at a fire-damanged church nearby was convincingly and impressively deflated last week in a report by the Interior Department’s inspector general.

Although punctured, the photo op narrative may well live on as a full-blown media-driven myth, as a tale widely believed despite the evidence disputing it.

From the IG’s report

Embedded in the narrative about Trump’s photo op of June 1, 2020, are earmarks of media myths — those well-known tales about and/or by the news media that are widely known and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.

The inspector general’s report made clear that corporate media exaggerated in declaring that Trump or his aides ordered demonstrators dispersed from Lafayette Park so he could pose at the historic St. John Episcopal Church, the basement of which had been damaged by fire in rioting the night before.

Mark Lee Greenblatt, the Interior Department inspector general, said in a statement accompanying the report that “the evidence did not support a finding that the USPP cleared the park on June 1, 2020, so that then President Trump could enter the park” en route to the church. (USPP is an acronym for United States Park Police, a law enforcement unit of the National Park Service.)

The protests near the White House were sparked by the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer a few days earlier.

“No one we interviewed stated that the USPP cleared the park because of a potential visit by the President or that the USPP altered the timeline to accommodate the President’s movement,” the inspector general’s report stated.

Instead, the report said, Park Police “cleared the park to allow the contractor to safely install the antiscale fencing in response to destruction of property and injury to officers” that occurred during civil unrest the two nights before. Indeed, fencing material had arrived at the site before Park Police learned of Trump’s plans, according to a timeline included in the report.

Such findings represent a serious blow to an aggressive media narrative that excoriated Trump for arrogance, hubris, and reckless use of power. “The IG’s conclusion could not be clearer: the media narrative was false from start to finish,” wrote prominent media critic Glenn Greenwald, referring to the inspector general’s report.

“In sum,” Greenwald added, “the media claims that were repeated over and over and over as proven fact — and even confirmed by ‘fact-checkers’ — were completely false.”

And yet, it is not at all far-fetched that the tale of Trump’s photo op will live on as a media myth — believed because it’s believable, even though disputed or severely challenged.

The photo op narrative shares central features of media myths in that it’s a prominent tale but yet simplistic, pithy, and easily retold.

Similarly, the photo-op tale is, at least perhaps for foes of Trump, too good not to be true, a truism also characteristic of many media myths.

Likewise, the tale of the photo op is focused on a clear central actor — a clear villain, in this case. In that regard, it’s reminiscent of the central actor in the mythical but enduring tale of William Randolph Hearst, a media bogeyman for all time, and his vow to “furnish the war” with Spain in the late 19th century.

Moreover, the photo op episode lends itself to readily identifiable shorthand, not unlike the myth of the so-called “Cronkite Moment,” in which an editorial comment by CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite in 1968 supposedly swung public opinion against the war in Vietnam. The epithet “Trump’s photo op” already is routinely associated with the events near the White House on June 1, 2020.

Another feature of media myths is that high-profile challenges to arise well after the erroneous narrative is in place. Such was the case of the media myth that Washington Post reporters brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency. What I call the heroic journalists interpretation of the Watergate scandal took hold before it was ever prominently challenged. The inspector general’s report was released slightly more than a year after the photo-op episode.

And even then, the inspector general’s report set off little soul-searching by the corporate media, especially by news outlets such as CNN, which ran hard with the photo-op story as it unfolded last year.

 

But rarely do the corporate media take to soul-searching or apologies when they fumble an important story, a point made in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong. Or as media critic Jack Shafer noted years ago:

“The rotten truth is that media organizations are better at correcting trivial errors of fact — proper spellings of last names, for example — than they are at fixing a botched story.”

Shafer further wrote: “Individual journalists are a lot like doctors, lawyers, and pilots in that they hate to admit they were wrong no matter what the facts are.”

So it’s been with the Trump-photo op. Corporate media have been disinclined to offer explanations or to revisit their misguided assumptions in any sustained way.

In a few instances, journalists have openly disparaged the inspector general’s report. CNN’s chief domestic correspondent, Jim Acosta, referred to Trump’s private estate in Florida and sneered that the report suggested “this inspector general was auditioning to become the inspector general at Mar-A-Lago because this is almost a whitewash of what occurred on June 1st.”

Almost a “whitewash”? And what was that about reluctance to concede error “no matter what the facts are”?

WJC

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Watergate myth, extravagant version: Nixon was ‘dethroned entirely’ by press

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 24, 2021 at 7:15 am

Nixon ‘dethroned entirely’ by the press? Hardly

The mythical notion that dogged journalism brought down Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal is unshakeable in its appeal and irresistible in its application.

Seldom has the myth been presented as colorfully or extravagantly as it was in a recent Esquire UK essay pegged to the 45th anniversary of the release of All the President’s Men, the movie that did much to embed the heroic-journalist trope in popular consciousness.

“It’s easy to romantici[z]e a time when people bought newspapers and presidents could be shamed,” the essay stated. “We think of simpler as better. Which is perhaps why, on its 45th anniversary, All the President’s Men, is ostensibly heralded as something of a shiny art[i]fact from an even shinier era.

“Because back then, presidents couldn’t only be shamed by the free-ish and fair-ish press, but dethroned entirely – a rare event that serves as the true life narrative backbone of All the President’s Men as it retells the Watergate scandal and The Washington Post reporters behind its excavation.”

Dethroned entirely?

That may be a charmingly British turn of phrase.

But it’s not what happened in Watergate.

The movie All the President’s Men certainly leaves the impression Nixon was dethroned by journalism, given its focus on the characters of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the lead reporters for the Washington Post on Watergate.

But in reality, forces and factors far more diverse and powerful than Woodward and Bernstein brought about the fall Nixon and his corrupt presidency.

As I wrote in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, breaking open the Watergate scandal “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, and the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.”

And even then, I noted, “Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up” of Watergate’s seminal crime — the foiled break-in at Democratic National Headquarters in June 1972.

To explain Watergate “through the lens of the heroic journalist,” I further wrote, “is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth” — a version even Woodward has disputed.

He told an interviewer in 2004, 30 years after Nixon resigned:

To say that the press brought Nixon, that’s horseshit.”

It cannot be said often enough that in their reporting, Woodward and Bernstein  missed some key developments as the Watergate scandal unfolded — notably the disclosure that Nixon had installed the secret taping system at the White House.

The existence of the tapes was revealed in July 1973, in testimony by a former Nixon aide before the U.S. Senate Committee on Watergate.

Without the tapes, it’s unlikely Nixon’s guilt in Watergate would have been conclusively demonstrated. That was the interpretation of, among others, Watergate’s preeminent historian, Stanley I. Kutler.

“Absent the tapes, Nixon walks,” Kutler said in 2011, almost four years before his death.

Put another way, absent the tapes, no Nixon dethroning.

So what, then, accounts for the persistence of Watergate’s heroic-journalist myth?

Its appeal no doubt reflects a fundamental characteristic of media myths: it’s simplistic. The heroic-journalists interpretation offers easy-to-grasp version of a sprawling scandal that sent some two dozen men to jail. Embracing the heroic-journalist  trope allows the side-stepping of Watergate’s intricacies.

It’s become what I’ve called “ready short-hand for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.”

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

Hal Holbrook, ‘follow the money,’ and Watergate’s distorted history

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Quotes, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 3, 2021 at 8:48 am

The death of actor Hal Holbrook was reported yesterday and, inevitably, his cinematic portrayal of a shadowy, garage-lurking source in the Watergate scandal received prominent mention in a flurry of obituaries.

Those articles recalled Holbrook’s advice in the film All the President’s Men to “follow the money” which, in the movie, was presented as guidance crucial to unraveling the scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon in 1974.

Holbrook’s portrayal of the journalist’s source code-named “Deep Throat” was, as I wrote in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, “marvelously twitchy and conflicted.” And his famous line was delivered so crisply and with such certainty that it has become perhaps the most memorable turn of phrase associated with Watergate.

Indeed, “follow the money” is a cinematic anagram that often has been taken as genuine. In fact it’s Watergate’s most famous made-up line. The urgent-sounding advice was written into the screenplay of All the President’s Men, which was adapted from a book by the Post’s lead Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

Their book, also titled All the President’s Men, was an immediate best-seller when it came out in 1974, not long before Nixon’s resignation.

As popular as the book was, far more people have seen the movie, which has been lavishly praised over the years for its outstanding cast and for its supposed accuracy. The Post’s movie critic once declared, extravagantly:

“In the annals of Washington’s most sacred narratives, none is more venerated than ‘All the President’s Men,’ which since its release in 1976 has held up not only as a taut, well-made thriller but as the record itself of the Watergate scandal that transpired four years earlier.”

The movie as the “record itself of the Watergate scandal.”

Hardly.

Beyond injecting “follow the money” into the popular vernacular, All the President’s Men toyed with the historical record in several respects. Notably, the film:

  • embraced and elevated the mythical heroic-journalist trope, depicting the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein as vital to unraveling the scandal. In fact, Woodward and Bernstein missed key developments in Watergate, such as the pivotal disclosure of the taping system Nixon had installed at the White House.
  • minimized, and even denigrated, the decisive contributions of investigative agencies such as the FBI in exposing the crimes of Watergate. Subpoena-wielding Congressional panels also were crucial to defining the scandal’s dimensions.
  • depicted Woodward and Bernstein as having faced threats far greater than they really encountered. They were shown, for example, as taking precautions to thwart electronic surveillance presumably aimed at them by the Nixon administration. Although “Deep Throat” — who in real life was Mark Felt, a high-level FBI official — had warned them about such eavesdropping techniques, Woodward and Bernstein followed precautions such as conferring on street corners only for a short period. It “all seemed rather foolish and melodramatic,” they wrote in their book, and soon went back to their routines.

The film also blurred somewhat the personas of Holbrook and Felt, who in 2005 revealed that he had been Woodward’s “Deep Throat” source. An  essay in the Post today claimed that while Holbrook’s “follow the money” line had been made up for dramatic purposes, it “still reflected what Felt was saying without saying it.”

Interestingly, Holbrook, who was 95 when he died last month, said late in his life that he wasn’t interested in playing the “Deep Throat” source because the character was shown only in deep shadows of a parking garage. “I turned the script down because there’s nothing there,” Holbrook said in an interview with the Television Academy Foundation. “You don’t see the guy and there’s nothing there. I’m not going to do it.”

Holbrook was persuaded to take the part by Robert Redford, who acquired rights to Woodward and Bernstein’s book and played Woodward in the movie. “He said, ‘Listen, Hal. People will remember this role more than anything else in the film. … I’m telling you the truth, they will remember this role,'” Holbrook quoted Redford as saying.

Holbrook said he relented and reluctantly agreed to play “Deep Throat.” He acknowledged in the interview that Redford turned out to be right about the memorable quality of the stealthy character. “He was right as rain,” Holbrook conceded. “He understood it, and I didn’t.”

WJC

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An international dimension to prominent media myths

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Quotes, Television, Watergate myth on January 6, 2021 at 10:06 pm

It’s at least mildly intriguing to consider how international news outlets can be so eager to recite prominent myths about the American media.

Johnson: Not watching Cronkite

A few months back, for example, the Guardian of London invoked the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate, declaring that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernsteinbrought down” Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency “with their reporting on Watergate nearly a half-century ago.”

Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper has been known to invoke the mythical “Cronkite Moment” to underscore how, in a splintered media environment, no single television anchor can project ousize influence. Not that Walter Cronkite, the CBS News anchorman, actually did so in editorializing about the Vietnam War — the occasion in late February 1968 that gave rise to what has become a hoary media myth.

Just the other day, La Razón, a newspaper in Madrid, conjured the “Cronkite Moment” in declaring, credulously, that Cronkite’s on-air assessment that night in 1968 — when he claimed the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam — effectively dismantled years of “presidential propaganda” about the American war effort in Southeast Asia.

La Razón further declared that President Lyndon B. Johnson, “watching the broadcast in his office, said that ‘if I have lost Cronkite, I have lost America.'”

Which is highly improbable.

We know that Johnson was not at his “office” the night of Cronkite’s program. He was not at the White House, either, and not in front of a television set. Johnson at the time was attending a black-tie birthday party in Austin, Texas, for his long-time political ally, Governor John Connally (see photo nearby).

About the time Cronkite was stating his “mired in stalemate” claim, Johnson wasn’t bemoaning the loss of America or anything like it. He was engaging in light-hearted banter about Connally’s age.

“Today,” the president said, “you are 51, John. That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for — a simple majority.”

Far from having powerful effects on the U.S. president or on U.S. policy, Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment was neither remarkable nor profound at the time.

For months before Cronkite’s program, U.S. news organizations had referred to “stalemate” to describe the war effort.

The New York Times, in an analysis published August 7, 1967,  declared “the war is not going well. Victory is not close at hand.”

The Times analysis, which was filed from Saigon, also stated:

“‘Stalemate’ is a fighting word in Washington. President Johnson rejects it as a description of the situation in Vietnam. But it is the word used by almost all Americans here, except the top officials, to characterize what is happening.”

The Times’ assessment appeared on its front page, beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.

Interestingly, Cronkite rejected the supposedly powerful effects of his commentary about Vietnam. In his memoir titled A Reporters’ Life and published in 1997, Cronkite wrote that for the president, the “mired in stalemate” assessment was “just one more straw in the increasing burden of Vietnam.”

Cronkite repeated the analogy in promoting the book, telling CNBC that he doubted the program “had a huge significance. I think it was a very small straw on a very heavy load [Johnson] was already carrying.”

“A very small straw,” indeed.

If that.

Also, there is no certain evidence that Johnson later saw Cronkite’s on videotape. If he had, the impact of Cronkite’s remarks likely would have been diluted as aides could have been expected to have told the president what he was about to see on tape.

In any case, the “Cronkite Moment” clearly exerts powerful appeal for news outlets outside the United States. And why is that? More broadly, what makes American media myths so broadly attractive, internationally?

For one reason, these tales obviously are not understood to be the stuff of myth; they are regarded as factual. Plus, they can seem too tempting and too pertinent to pass up: too good not to be true.

Also, they provide useful if simplistic and unambiguous frames of reference for international news organizations in reporting about, and analyzing, political developments in contemporary America.

La Razón’s credulous commentary invoked the “Cronkite Moment” in discussing what it called “la destrumpizacion” (or “the detrumpization”) of America  as Donald Trump enters the closing days of his presidency.

WJC

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Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2020

In Debate myth, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Newspapers, Reviews, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 30, 2020 at 9:29 pm

Media Myth Alert directed attention periodically in 2020 to the appearance of well-known media-driven myths, those prominent tales about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.

Here’s a look at the year’s five top writeups at Media Myth Alert, a year in which corporate media’s woeful coverage of the presidential election figured prominently.

■ The shame of the press (posted October 31): As the 2020 presidential election neared, much of U.S. corporate media indulged in what I called “willful blindness on an extraordinary scale.”

They ignored, suppressed, or risibly dismissed as Russian disinformation credible allegations of international influence-peddling by the son of Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden. The effect was to shield Biden, an undeniably flawed and feeble candidate, from scrutiny and thus help him defeat President Donald Trump, whom they so deeply detest.

This conduct by corporate media, I wrote, represented “an abdication of fundamental journalistic values of detachment, and impartiality. A defining ethos of American journalism that emerged during the second half of the Twentieth Century emphasized even-handed treatment of the news and an avoidance of overt, blatant partisanship.

“Rank-and-file journalists tended to regard politicians of both major parties with a mixture of suspicion and mild contempt. It was a kind of ‘fie on both houses’ attitude. Running interference for a politician was considered more than a little unsavory.

“Not so much anymore.”

Biden’s son is suspected of arranging lucrative, pay-for-play business arrangements in Ukraine — supposedly without the candidate’s knowledge. But reporting in the New York Post — based on emails retrieved from a laptop computer the son abandoned at a repair shop — undercut Joe Biden’s claims of ignorance. The Bidens have not disputed the authenticity of the emails. Nor have they seriously or substantively addressed the allegations.

Subsequent reporting suggested that Joe Biden had a secret financial involvement in his son’s efforts to arrange a lucrative deal with a Chinese energy company tied to the country’s communist regime.

“The narratives are detailed, with many dimensions and potential implications — all which make media scrutiny all the more urgent,” I wrote.

Didn’t happen.

After the election, corporate media briefly lifted their blackout to report that the FBI for two years had been looking into the son’s accepting payments from international sources. The federal inquiry centers around suspected violations of tax laws.

But corporate media of course offered no apologies for their shameful rejection of journalistic curiosity in the run-up to the election.

New York Times commentary offers up that hoary 1960 debate myth (posted August 5): Some media-centric tall tales, I noted, “are just too good to die away.”

A telling example is the exaggerated claim of viewer-listener disagreement during and immediately after the first presidential debate in 1960 between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy. The myth has it that Nixon “won” the debate among radio listeners but because he perspired noticeably and looked bad on television, “lost” the debate among TV viewers.

Nixon on debate stage, 1960

The notion of viewer-listener disagreement was impressively demolished 33 years ago, by scholars David Vancil and Sue D. Pendell. Their article, I wrote, “remains a fine example of thorough, evidence-based debunking.”

And yet the myth of viewer-listener disagreement lives on, as an the New York Times made clear in an essay published in early August.

The essay’s author, veteran Washington journalist Elizabeth Drew, unreservedly invoked the hoary myth, writing that “Nixon was considered to have won on substance on the radio, while the cooler and more appealing Kennedy won on television.”

As I noted in the second edition of my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “the myth of viewer-listener disagreement [is] one of the most resilient, popular, and delectable memes about the media and American politics. Despite a feeble base of supporting documentation, it is a robust trope” that rests more on assertion, and repetition, than on evidence.

Had television and radio audiences differed so strikingly and sharply about the debate’s winner, journalists in 1960 were well-positioned to identify and report on such disparate reactions — especially soon after the first Kennedy-Nixon encounter when interest in the debate and its novelty ran high.

But of the scores of newspaper articles, editorials, and commentaries I examined in my research about the Nixon-Kennedy debate, none made specific reference to such an audience effect. Even oblique hints about viewer-listener disagreement were few, vague, and fleeting.

Woodward’s latest book prompts myth-telling about Watergate (posted September 22): “It was predictable,” I wrote. “Inevitable, even.”

It was all but certain that news reports and reviews of Rage, Bob Woodward‘s latest book about Trump and his presidency, would credulously recite the media myth that Woodward’s Watergate reporting brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

He didn’t bring down Nixon

And sure enough, news outlets in the United States and abroad summoned the mythical trope — a trope that even Woodward has on occasion attempted to dismiss.

An editorial in the Detroit Free Press, for example, described Woodward as “famed for having brought down former President Richard Nixon.”

The New York Post stated that Woodward and his Watergate reporting partner at the Washington Post, Carl Bernstein, had together “brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon.”

The Toronto Sun likewise asserted that the Woodward and Bernstein‘s “1970s Watergate reporting … brought down Richard Nixon.”

The Guardian of London declared in its review that Nixon was “the president Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down with their reporting on Watergate nearly a half-century ago.”

What explains this inclination to embrace so blithely what long ago was debunked as a media myth?

As I wrote in Getting It Wrong, the heroic-journalist interpretation of the Watergate scandal — “that the dogged reporting of two young, hungry, and tireless Washington Post journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, brought down Nixon and his corrupt presidency” — is deeply appealing. The trope offers reassurance to contemporary journalists  that their reporting, too, just might have powerful effects.

The trope also represents “ready shorthand,” I noted, “for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.” Watergate after all was a tangle of lies, deceit, and criminality, and popular understanding of the details has faded considerably since Nixon resigned in August 1974.

To explain Watergate “through the lens of the heroic journalist,” I wrote, “is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth” — one that even Woodward has disputed.

He memorably told an interviewer in 2004:

To say that the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit.”

Flawed PBS ‘McCarthy’ doc notable for what it left out (posted January 26): Early in the year, PBS aired an “American Experience” documentary about Joseph R. McCarthy, the notorious red-baiting U.S. senator of the early Cold War.

The timing of the program was puzzling: Why revisit the McCarthy story in January 2020? Anniversaries can be a convenient peg for such retrospective programs. But nothing in January was memorably associated with the McCarthy saga.

The producers most likely wanted to suggest that President Trump, in his bluster, exaggerations, and combative demeanor, is reminiscent of Joe McCarthy.

If that were the intent, I wrote, “the allusion was muddled. And under-developed.” And unpersuasive. Trump is a far more complicated character than McCarthy, an obscure, hard-drinking Republican senator from Wisconsin who seized on his communists-in-government campaign as a ticket to prominence in the early 1950s.

The documentary also presented a conventional — and misleading interpretation — that the American press was unwilling to stand up to McCarthy, reluctant to challenge his thinly sourced charges about communist infiltration of the federal government.

As I’ve often noted at Media Myth Alert, not all prominent journalists of the early 1950s were inclined to excuse or ignore McCarthy’s excesses or soft-pedal his allegations.

Foremost among McCarthy’s foes in American journalism was Drew Pearson, a Washington-based muckraking columnist who took on the senator just days after he began his communists-in-government campaign in 1950.

Pearson was persistent in challenging McCarthy, disputing not only the senator’s red-baiting claims but calling attention to other misdeeds, such as McCarthy’s tax troubles in Wisconsin and the suspicious financial contributions to his campaign for senate.

Pearson deserved more recognition than PBS granted.

The documentary’s lone reference to the columnist came in a passing mention about his physical confrontation with McCarthy in December 1950 when the senator cornered him in the cloak room of the fashionable Sulgrave Club in Washington, D.C. McCarthy was the aggressor and either kneed, slugged, or slapped Pearson. Contemporaneous accounts about the assault differed.

The broader point about Pearson’s reporting is that journalists were challenging McCarthy in the early days of his communists-in-government crusade. And Pearson was not alone.

Richard Rovere of the New Yorker also was an early critic of McCarthy.

But the documentary made no mention of Rovere at all.

Our incurious press (posted November 30): The 2020 presidential election gave rise to many curious turns in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, where the election turned. These included atypical voting patterns, statistical anomalies, and extreme spikes in vote counts in Biden’s favor that took place in pre-dawn hours in key states.

These and other oddities of the election deserved corporate media’s scrutiny.

Instead, they were indifferent and dismissive, eager to wave off what may be called “the strange details” of the election — and do so without much independent inquiry. “Baseless” quickly became a favored characterization.

They seemed not to realize that the suspicions about the conduct of the election are certain to persist, clouding the putative victory of the 78-year-old Biden, who seldom strayed from his basement during the Fall campaign and whose gaffes and incoherence suggest he’s not up to the job of president.

The election’s oddities and anomalies warranted dispassionate investigation, especially as a large numbers of Americans — and more than a few Democrats among them — suspect the election was marred by tampering and suspicious conduct like the delaying and interrupting of vote-counts.

It was not as if corporate media lacked the will or interest to investigate suspicions of election anomalies and fraud. After all, the New York Times and Washington Post did share a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on vague suspicions that Trump somehow conspired with Russia to win the 2016 presidential election — suspicions that proved exaggerated, over-wrought and, in a word, baseless.

And it was not as if corporate media were chastened that their investigations of the 2016 election came a cropper. Rather, they have become so predictably partisan as to be disinclined to do anything that could bolster Trump, or damage Biden.

WJC

Other memorable posts of 2020:

Getting it right about a legendary newspaper editorial

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Sun, New York Times, Newspapers, Quotes on December 21, 2020 at 6:54 pm

The timeless paean to childhood and the Christmas spirit, published in 1897 in the old New York Sun, long ago became the single best-known, most-reprinted editorial in American journalism.

It also is a myth-distorted artifact, as suggested by errant media descriptions and characterizations over the years.

Such descriptions have misidentified the editorial’s title and erred about its derivation. (Surely it cannot be churlish to expect news outlets to get it right about a legendary commentary of unrivaled exceptionality.)

Is There_NYSunThe editorial (see image nearby) was published September 21, 1897, beneath the single-column headline, “Is There A Santa Claus?” Its title was not “Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus” (as a commentary several years ago in the Tampa Bay Times maintained; that commentary, incidentally, began by asserting: “Good reporters have always checked things out”).

The phrase, “Yes, Virginia,” introduces the 1897 editorial’s most memorable and eloquent passage, which reads:

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.”

The editorial was inspired by the letter of a New York City girl named Virginia O’Hanlon, who, years afterward, recalled the excited speculation that led her to write to the Sun. “My birthday was in July,” she said, “and, as a child, I just existed from July to December, wondering what Santa Claus would bring me.”

She composed her letter not in the autumn of 1897 — as is often assumed — but shortly after turning eight-years-old in July that year. She implored the Sun to tell her “the truth” about Santa Claus.

As I discuss in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, it is likely that Virginia’s letter was overlooked, or misplaced, at the Sun for an extended period. In any case, the Sun did not publish a “quick response” to Virginia, as is sometimes claimed.

We know this because Virginia had said she eagerly anticipated a reply but after weeks of waiting, gave up and figured the Sun would not respond. “After writing to the Sun,” she told an audience in Connecticut in the late 1950s, “I looked every day for the simple answer I expected. When it didn’t appear, I got disappointed and forgot about it.”

Her letter finally reached Francis P. Church, a veteran editorial writer for the Sun who, according to an account by Edward P. Mitchell, the newspaper’s editorial page editor, took on the assignment grudgingly.

Mitchell wrote in a memoir that Church “bristled and pooh-poohed at the subject when I suggested he write a reply to Virginia O’Hanlon; but he took the letter and turned with an air of resignation to his desk.”

He wrote the famous editorial in the course of a day’s work, without an inkling that it would come to be celebrated by generations of readers.

It is sometimes said the editorial was an instant sensation and as such was reprinted yearly by the Sun. Neither claim is quite accurate.

Despite its odd timing, the editorial prompted no comment or response from rival newspapers in New York — at a time when newspapers were eager to point to the flaws, deficiencies, and misjudgments of peer publications.

And the Sun’s embrace of “Is There A Santa Claus?” was diffident, reluctant, and unenthusiastic. Not until the 1920s did the Sun routinely republish the editorial at Christmastime — a move that represented a triumph for the newspaper’s readers who, as I wrote in The Year that Defined American Journalism, frequently over the years had called for the editorial to be reprinted.

In the ten years that followed its initial publication, the Sun republished “Is There A Santa Claus?” at Christmastime only twice.

The first time was in 1902. On that occasion, the Sun reprinted the editorial with more than a hint of annoyance, stating:

“Since its original publication, the Sun has refrained from reprinting the article on Santa Claus which appeared several years ago, but this year requests for its reproduction have been so numerous that we yield.” The newspaper added this gratuitous swipe:

“Scrap books seem to be wearing out.”

The Sun next reprinted the editorial in December 1906, as a tribute to Church, who had died eight months before.

The Sun said then it was reprinting the editorial “at the request of many friends of the Sun, of Santa Claus, of the little Virginias of yesterday and to-day, and of the author of the essay, the late F.P. Church.”

Church was a retiring and diffident man, comfortable amid the anonymity of the editorial page. It is sometimes said that his motto was: “Endeavor to clear your mind of cant.”

But it probably was not his motto. The epigram about cant appeared in an obituary about Church, published in the New York Times on April 13, 1906. In it, the Times said that Church “might have taken for his own motto, ‘Endeavor to clear your mind of cant.”’ Might have.

Francis P. Church

Church
(Courtesy Century Club)

Church’s authorship of the famous editorial was revealed by the Sun soon after his death, in an editorial tribute published April 12, 1906.

“At this time, with the sense of personal loss strong upon us,” the newspaper said of Church, “we know of no better or briefer way to make the friends of the Sun feel that they too have lost a friend than to violate custom by indicating him as the author of the beautiful and often republished editorial article affirming the existence of Santa Claus, in reply to the question of a little girl.”

Virginia O’Hanlon grew up to a teacher and a principal. She married unhappily but kept her husband’s surname, had one daughter, and lived till 1971. Her death in upstate New York at age 81 was reported on the front page of the New York Times.

So why, after more than 120 years, does Church’s reply to Virginia O’Hanlon lives on like no other editorial commentary? What has made it sui generis?

Here are some reasons:

  • The editorial is cheering and reaffirming; it also is a rich and searching intellectual discussion as well.
  • It represents a connection to a time long past, a time before the internet, social media, television, and even radio or manned flight; it is reassuring, somehow, to recognize that sentiments appealing to newspaper readers at the end of the 19th century remain appealing today.
  • It offers an evocative reminder to adults about Christmases past, about the times when they, too, were believers.
  • It has proven to be a way for generations of parents to address the skepticism of their children about Santa Claus. They can point to the editorial and its timeless answer to an inevitable question – and not really have to fib about the existence of Santa.

This post is an expanded version of an essay published at Media Myth Alert in December 2013.

WJC

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